An eventful dinner with the presidentFor a Western viewer with a passerby’s understanding of Korean history, “The President’s Last Bang” might stir more memories of “Dr. Strangelove” than of anything else. President Park Chung Hee is a minor character in this bitter comedy about his 1979 assassination (which is being shown with English subtitles at JoongAng Cinema). Its real interest is in the petty middle-managers, drunken plotters and baffled foot-soldiers around him, and the absurd moral chaos through which they’re fumbling.
Directed by Im Sang-su (“A Good Lawyer’s Wife”), the movie takes place during the 24 hours or so surrounding Park’s assassination over dinner, and the view is mostly of the dictator’s inner circle. Park is an old man in decline who seems mostly interested in the girls who are procured for him. His assassin, who is also his intelligence chief, Kim Jae-kyu (Baek Yun-sik), mouths words about democracy, but seems at least equally motivated by resentment and booze.
Kim’s right-hand-man (Han Seok-gyu), more or less the movie’s protagonist, helps carry out the assassination in what seems to be a spirit of contempt for himself and everyone around him (“We’ve got nothing better to do, anyway”). His own men barely seem to know what they’re doing (“What do you mean, ‘shoot them’?”), but are willing to turn their guns on people who work for the same government because somebody said they should. The overall feeling is of a decaying banana republic.
The elements of farce ―such as, for example, a military commander respectfully covering the dead president’s genitalia with an officer’s cap ―take on a horrific aspect, as in “Dr. Strangelove” and other black political comedies, because of the blood we know is on most of these people’s hands. The film mostly takes place in well-appointed homes and offices, but an undertone of thuggishness is present throughout.
It comes closest to the surface in a couple of key tracking shots. One takes us through an intelligence agency building where “spies” are being waterboarded and beaten for such offenses as liking Picasso (Picasso having been a Communist); another, shot from above, moves through the rooms of the presidential residence after the assassination, past staffers lying in blood. Some of these are bodyguards; others just unlucky cooks.
Notoriously, a Korean judge ordered three sequences removed from “The President’s Last Bang” (the original Korean title translates as “The People at That Time”) prior to its release last month. Those scenes used documentary footage, some of which was of an uprising against Park’s regime that took place just before the assassination. It’s tempting to imagine that those pieces of stark, actual history were key to the intended effect, and that what’s now an interesting and darkly amusing movie will be a really powerful one after they’re put back in.
The President’s Last Bang
Drama, Comedy / Korean
by David Moll
“The President’s Last Bang” is being shown with English subtitles through April 14 at JoongAng Cinema in Myeongdong. Screenings are at 11 a.m. and 1:30, 4 and 6:50 p.m. weekdays, and at 10:40 a.m. and 12:40, 2:40, 4:40 and 6:40 p.m. weekends.